Published: March 29, 2011
Boldly claiming cures for all manner of ailments, posters have long been a favorite form of advertising for manufacturers, pharmacies and quack doctors alike. Bright colors and punchy slogans captured the public’s attention, using humor, satire and caricature to sell products, promote pharmacies, or to warn against social evils including alcoholism, marijuana and venereal disease.
“Health For Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection,” on view April 2⁊uly 31 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presents some 50 health-related posters, their subjects ranging from medical conferences, good hygiene and pharmaceuticals to spurious cures. The advertisements are drawn from the personal collection of William H. Helfand, who has been amassing fine prints, drawings, caricatures, trade cards, posters and ephemera depicting medical subjects since the mid-1950s. The exhibition is drawn from the many generous gifts that he has made to the Philadelphia Museum of Art over the course of more than four decades.
Arranged thematically, the posters range in date from an 1846-47 poster advertising quinine “bitters” recommended for treating dyspepsia to a 1985 poster promoting a benefit concert to raise money for AIDS research.
The arresting combination of typography and imagery employed in these printed announcements demonstrates the ingenuity of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century poster designer. The ability of a well-conceived design to drum up sales around the globe is abundantly evident in the range of languages used in the posters on view, which include French, Spanish, Italian, English and German. One of the most striking posters is Man as Industrial Palace, a diagram of the human body as an industrial factory, dreamed up in the 1920s in Germany by Dr Fritz Kahn.
To capture the attention of the public, medical posters frequently featured whimsical subject matter, such as bears drinking Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral. These engaging graphics were often the work of anonymous designers, but prominent artists, such as Jules Chéret (French, 1836‱932) and Leonetto Cappiello (French, 1875‱942) also produced medical posters.
It was Chéret’s large, colorful lithographs that elevated the crude commercial placard to the rank of fine art in the 1890s, with depictions of vivacious young French women (modeled after his own wife) that call to mind the popular American “Gibson Girl” of the early Twentieth Century.
Cappiello’s silhouetted figures demonstrate the beneficial effect of the product being advertised, as in the case of a smiling senior citizen dancing for joy as a result of taking Uricure pills in a 1910 poster promoting this remedy for rheumatism, arthritis, gout and kidney stones. Whether Uricure was effective is questionable, but Cappiello’s bold approach revolutionized Twentieth Century poster design with striking graphics and bright colors.
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